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Granato nearly became a star in another sport

by Mike G. Morreale
If not for a late admission, Cammi Granato may have been playing soccer somewhere instead of captaining the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic women's ice hockey team in Nagano, Japan.

"I wasn't accepted anywhere else, had my roommate set at Wisconsin and felt I wasn't going to get the chance to play college hockey after all, so my thoughts turned to soccer," Granato said.

It was around that time, in July 1989, when Granato finally received her admittance to Providence College on a hockey scholarship. The rest, as we now know, is history.

"It's pretty weird to think that I wasn't even going to play college hockey if not for an acceptance letter that arrived late," Granato said. "If I did attend Wisconsin for soccer, who knows what would have happened?"

For starters, thousands of teenage girls never would have realized their dream of playing collegiate or international hockey. Granato has become an ambassador to the women's game. She even appeared on the front of a Wheaties cereal box and carried the American flag for Team USA during closing ceremonies of the 1998 Olympics.

And on Friday, she'll become the first female of 138 members to be inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony at Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver. Joining the 37-year-old Granato, who was named USA Hockey Player of the Year in 1996, into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame will be fellow Olympians and NHL legends Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter.

"It's really special to me to be inducted with these three guys," Granato said. "Guys I idolized and loved to watch."

Hull said he's privileged to be entering the Hall alongside Granato.

"I'd put Cammi's impact on the game and the team she played for right up there with what the 1980 Olympic men's team did for hockey in this country," Hull said. "She's done just as much, if not more, for grass roots hockey at that level. I don't think they could have picked anyone better to be the first woman inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame."

A 15-year member of the U.S. Women's National Team beginning in 1990, Granato is the program's all-time scoring leader with 343 points (186 goals) in 205 games. She achieved international fame in 1998 when she captained Team USA to the first Olympic gold medal in women's ice hockey history.

"What stood out for me was our pre-Olympic tour before the actual games began," Granato said. "It felt like we were finally professionals. I had seen my brothers and the schedules they kept, how they got to play in these beautiful arenas and kind of hop around the country and there was always a buzz around them. For the first time in my career, there was a buzz around what we were doing and people cared and we would go into these professional rinks, sit in the locker rooms and dress for big games. It was magic for me and I loved it."

She also remembers the sleepless night prior to the opening ceremony.

"(My roommates and I) couldn't sleep, so we actually put on every piece of clothing we had planned to wear during the opening ceremonies like our snow jackets, gloves, hats, turtle-neck shirts and scarves and began marching around our hotel room, looking in the mirror, waving and practicing," she said. "It was a great memory for me because it recounts just how excited we really were."

In 29 pre-Olympic games in 1998, Granato had 14 goals and 31 points. Team Canada was the gold-medal favorite, as it had been in previous international competitions in women's hockey. Behind Granato's 4 goals and 4 assists in six Olympic games, however, Team USA earned the gold. The U.S. outscored the opposition 36-8, including a memorable 3-1 decision over Canada in the gold-medal game on Feb. 17, 1998, in front of 8,626 fans.

"I've never been on a team where everyone realized their role and sort of gave up their pride and said, 'OK, I'm not on the power play but can handle it and I'll do my job the best I can,' and that's difficult to find," Granato said of her 20 Olympic teammates. "We hadn't won a world championship previously and were completely dominated by Canada, more psychologically speaking than anything else. So how were we going to beat them on the biggest stage ever? As one of the leaders of the team, that's what I had to figure out and we worked really hard at that. When you get that recipe, it often leads to something great and you could feel that building within our team."

Leetch recalls the excitement surrounding women's ice hockey at the Nagano Olympics.

"The battles the U.S. had against Canada were great and Cammi played such a huge part in that both on and off the ice," Leetch said. "We were all so proud because when she stepped out onto that Olympic ice, she was already a finished product and natural leader. She had already been through growing up with four brothers and fighting for recognition in the women's game long before that moment. When she finally got to that big spotlight and was able to represent the U.S. the way she did, witnessing the payoff was simply fantastic."

Four years after Nagano, Granato captained the United States to the silver medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. In her last international competition and ninth World Championship, she led Team USA to the gold medal, its first in an IIHF Women's World Championship. In 2007, Granato received the NHL's Lester Patrick Award in recognition for outstanding service to hockey in the United States, and in 2008, was enshrined into the IIHF Hall of Fame.
"I remember how hard (my brother) Tony worked and the respect he gained, so, for me, I'd like to be remembered like that -- as a great teammate who would go through a wall for anyone." – Cammi Granato
Granato, who provides support for needy children through the Golden Dreams for Children Foundation and helps run annual summer hockey camps in Illinois for boys and girls, hopes her legacy will inspire even more female hockey players.

"I remember how hard (my brother) Tony worked and the respect he gained, so, for me, I'd like to be remembered like that -- as a great teammate who would go through a wall for anyone," she said. "I loved the game and the people I played for and with. That's who I am."

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